A Spring Ritual: Trash-to-Treasure Fairy

There is no such thing as away!
A typical "trash" pile full of perfectly good stuff
A typical “trash” pile full of perfectly good stuff from the move-out day ritual.  Working fans, mattresses, bags of unused clothing, shoes, organization units, dishes, etc.

At the end of the semester in my quaint college town, a spring ritual of sorts takes place. (I know, I know. Spring rituals in college towns are rarely a good thing!) It is a holiday dedicated to the gods of consumption and waste, called “Move out day.” This day takes place the same day as graduation, and after graduation ceremonies, students and their families eagerly pack their cars and whisk themselves off to unknown destinations. Unfortunately, not everything that they brought, or bought here, goes with them. In fact, the primary activity of the move-out day ritual is making one’s sizable offering of new and lightly used goods on the sidewalk or in a series of dumpsters and then driving off into the sunset.

As you walk up and down the streets in the aftermath of this ritual, the carnage, and enormity can be overwhelming. To give you a sense of it, I’ll post two lists from friends and the “haul” they got from the move-out day:

“End of the semester means move-out day! This year’s haul includes a Weber grill, a metal bathroom shelf, an IKEA shelf unit, brand new Tefal fry pans, new cutting boards, a six-month supply of laundry soap and fabric softener, clothes, a fan, a folding chair, and two bikes.”

“I got two boxes full of dishes, a leather rolling chair, two brand new garbage cans, a sound system, two digital voice recorders, an Xbox with 5 games and controllers, a almost new scanner/printer unit, a vintage metal chair, a whole bag of clothing with the tags still on, three pairs of jeans, towels, crystal plates and cups, a box full of plates and cups, two small throw rugs, a wooden jewelry box…and probably some things I forgot.”

I think these two lists help you get the picture–this is not ordinary garbage, but a ton of perfectly good stuff, or brand new stuff, that for whatever reason, students no longer want in their lives.

Each of these items have a cost: an environmental cost, a social cost, a financial cost. So many resources–directly from the living earth–natural materials, fossil fuels, and the associated environmental tolls, environmental pollution from extraction sites, factory waste and runoff. Further, the social cost is also often extreme: workers and their families, near-slave labor in factories, chemical poisoning of workers, birth defects, poverty, and more. When we think about these costs and the cycle of purchasing and disposal, it is very hard to see mounds and mounds of stuff going completely unused go to the dump. At the dump, it has a final environmental cost as it slowly decays, especially with all of those electronics leeching heavy metals. I don’t think that students participating in their spring ritual really think about what I’ve outlined here–it is the simplest action just to leave stuff on the curb on your way home.

I’m not going to go into there reasons this happens (see my earlier post on “disposing of the disposable mindset“) but instead, with the inspiration of permaculture ethics, I’m going to share the inspirational story of the Trash-to-Treasure fairy.

Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash
Clothes wtih the tags on in the trash

The typical response to those on the sidelines of this spring ritual are: 1) ignore it is going on and go about your business; 2) shake your head and move along; or, 3) take advantage of it to see what stuff you can salvage, use, and take off the streets. I have found myself most often in the 3rd category, and I never considered taking it a step further. In fact, there are a lot of people out and about during the move out day ritual, participating in a counter-ritual of sorts, sorting through the piles and  looking for stuff they can use (hence the lists above). Others are scrappers, looking to see what metal they can salvage to scrap for bit of cash.  In fact, I have a lot of nice new dishes here, including an awesome enamel saucepan, from this year’s haul. I was personally not going out much, because, shamefully, I didn’t want to be seen as the professor digging through students’ garbage. And then, I saw what the Trash-to-Treasure fairy did, and in the upcoming years, I have decided that I am going to put that sentiment behind me in the future and take his lead.  And maybe solicit the help of some others in furthering the cause.

The trash-to-treasure fairy, summoned by the spring move-out ritual, decided that none of the three typical responses above were sufficient–and they aren’t. The first responses two allow a problem to happen,and don’t do anything about it other than have a non-response or levy judgement. The third response is much better in that some of what would otherwise wasted goes to use, but its also a very personal response problem, in that the larger problem still remains. But still, 95% of what is thrown away is still going to throw away, going to the landfill to spend 2000 years or more decomposing.

The fourth option, which the Trash-to-treasure fairy enacted, was using a different set of ethics: the permaculture ethics of earth care, fair share, as well as the design principles of “produce no waste” and “the problem is the solution.” In simple terms–because everything that is on the curb came from the earth, and the fairy honors the earth, he decided he wasn’t going to let it go back so easily. And so, he began working his magic. The fairy spent a number of hours filling his car with anything he found that was perfectly good and made runs to one of the local thrift stores.  He selected his store very carefully, avoiding one of the national chains, but a local place with more sound ethics, that directly put on the floor what is donated, and who directly feed the needy with the sales.  The thrift store manager was thrilled to see carloads of perfectly fine dishes, brand new clothing with the tags on, video game consoles, fans, and more–and often of a higher quality than the typically used donations. The fairy’s blessing extends to the shoppers, of all walks of life, that visit that particular store.  This simple solution was able to do car-loads more good than bringing it to your house or turning away from the problem.

Lots here that can be used again!
Lots here that can be used again!

I’m also inspired in another sense to take the Trash-to-Treasure fairy’s actions a few steps further.  For one, it seems that in the future, perhaps we can encourage the thrift stores to be there, in person, with donation trucks and make it really convenient for students to make a donation to their store instead of the curb. (We are in a small town, all of the stores are within 2 miles of where this is happening…but still, a lot of people can’t be bothered to drop stuff off on the edges of town). I’m also wondering if more education and a push by the university could help move more of this so-called “waste” into the hands of people who need it. I think there are lots of possibilities here, and I am thankful to have been so inspired by the Trash-to-Treasure fairy and to share this with all of you.

The Trash-to-Treasure fairy wasn’t content to take only what he needed, and instead, took it a step further. He stopped thinking about himself and his own needs, and instead, thought about the good of the earth and the community. I am inspired to continue and extend this tradition and help reduce the waste produced by my own campus community. The following week, a very similar spring ritual of my hometown, where my parents live, was taking place: “spring clean up” and I went with the trash-to-treaure fairy to see what we could salvage and give away. So many of us have an opportunity each day to do these little, yet powerful things. May the inspiration of the trash-to-treasure fairy be ever-present in your life!

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. 🙂 We have a few give-away stores here in Amsterdam. People come and bring their stuff and pick up stuff they like. The rules are simple: take only 5 items per person per day. Take only what you yourself use. I like it. I thought it would help me clean out some stuff, which it did, but I did take back a lot of books to so the only networth is that I have stuff I like better. But hey, it’s a start. 🙂 I think it is about time (or way past? 🙁 ) that we actually start thinking about consuming. 🙂
    xx, Feeling

    1. I love that–give away stores. I saw something like that at the community center where I did some teaching when I still lived in the Detroit Metro area. But there was nothing like it out here. I agree–we need to start really thinking about consuming! 🙂

  2. In my former career I was a social worker and I loved the once a year bulk pick up trash night in the city I served. I would borrow a pick up truck and I would take my clients around picking up nearly new sofas, refrigerators, furniture, kids swing sets, etc. We would load up the truck several times as we delivered to families that were in need. I was amazed at all of the clean, usable, household items that were put out. It brought a lot of joy to give a family of very little means things many take for granted.

    1. Great story! I just wish we could get that stuff more easily into the hands of the people. But every bit counts!

  3. This is what we call “Dumpster Diving”, even if you just troll the neighborhood where cans and items are put out in the evening for the next day’s pickup. Lots of people also put out things with a handwritten sign “free”, especially unsold yard sale items. We’ve got 2 Thrift/reuse/recycle stores right in central JP, Goodwill and Boomerangs (a non-profit that supports AIDS organizations) . In 10 years, I have gotten quite a few pieces of furniture and assorted things from sidewalks, in good or even new condition, including bookshelves, a cherry swivel TV stand and cabinet like new, nightstands, lamps, a great futon chair (that unfortunately got ruined in a garage I had it stored in, due to a leaky roof), desks, chairs, kitchen items, stereo, table, cabinet, plants, and many smaller miscellaneous things. I also have acquired useful things when moving into a place where the person moving out left things behind, or offered them for free.

    1. We dumpster dive too, but I think this whole approach takes it to the next level. Consequently, I was visiting my sister up near Ithaca, NY this past weekend and they call it “hippy Christmas” there :P.

  4. Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    This is such a timely post from Dana, particularly after my PA Round 2 trip of emptying my parents’ old house of 30 years and preparing it for sale. On my first stay, I lost count of how many carloads of belongings we took to Goodwill, and Mom took even more after Inleft. So much that she received a personal, gleeful thank you from Goodwill for all the high quality donations.

    Much of the emptying process occurred before I arrived on May 11, but even that came about via careful consideration and search for help. A professional organizer gave my mom a list of people who haul away usable items for donation, places that ethically recycle electronics, and where to call for other recycling and reuse options. My mom has been recycling for most of my life, and she feels very proud that so little of that house full of stuff went anywhere near a landfill. I did a Reiki Healing Attunement for all the stuff to find its new humans, and later that day, Mom called in wonder about how things were flying out the door. Just the right people showed up wanting what she had — no garage sale necessary. A hazardous waste collection day coincided with the morning I flew home, and that felt like a symbolic send off. That house could easily have filled dumpsters, but instead filled hearts. When we live in flow, honor the Earth, things find their rightful new homes. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore got a 2015 grant to recycle latex paint into new paint for homes; a local doctor makes quarterly trips to Haiti to deliver medical supplies and caregiver packages, crutches, walkers and canes for those who desperately need such things; the list goes on.

    My point is that an overwhelming task ended up bringing my mom great joy by helping so many others without destroying the planet. We can each do our part, and an entire economic stream can flow from “waste” — a stream that meanders in harmony with the power of giving back in positive ways instead of thoughtless expectations of other people — or other generations — to clean up our mess.

    1. Props on the healing attunement – never thought to use it on a dynamic situation like that1

      1. Thanks, Anna! Yes, I use Reiki Healing Attunements for all sorts of unconventional things. 🙂

    2. This is a fantastic story, Laura! The Goodwill in my old location would come pick stuff up from houses if you scheduled it, but I don’t see any such option out here where I live in Western PA. I love hearing the story and how you did energetic work to help the stuff on its way! Great story!

      1. Thanks! Yes, it was quite the journey and reminded us that things have spirits, too, and want to go where they will be loved and used. Energy prep also makes things so much easier in the physical level!

        1. Yeah, I had the same experience when I was moving. Giving away loved things is hard, but energetically preparing them helps :).

  5. I think the real solution to this problem is for the students to learn to be less wasteful. I am just appalled. They are only doing this because someone is modeling this kind of behavior, or at least someone is letting them get away with it. I don’t recall piles of stuff left behind when I was in college. The students were wasteful in other ways–the ones who would stand around for 20 minutes yakking in the bathroom while the hot water ran in the shower; the ones who took piles of food in the cafeteria, picked it over and complained about how bad it was, then threw most of it away, and so forth. From my country-girl point of view, these were spoiled and pampered city kids. I think that what it will take to get a change of attitude into their heads and their parents’ heads is not going to be pleasant. Yet it’s such a simple thing. Don’t buy what you don’t need; and if your living arrangement is temporary, give away things you can’t take with you–to someone who can use it, or to charity.

    1. I think, ultimately, that’s a good long-term goal. But around here, at least, they are only doing what they see modeled. The same weekend I posted this, I went out to where my parents live about an hour away, and there was “spring clean up” weekend, with literally 10-20′ piles of stuff on the side of the roads. They learn it from what they see around. But now, apparently, this a common trend, not just in the area but all over the place. They call it “Hippy Christmas” up in Ithaca (I was just visiting my sister up there this weekend).

      I think we are really talking about a change of attitude more broadly….although teaching students about it is a good place to start 🙂

      1. >> “Hippy Christmas”

        LOL – love it. The Craigslist “Free” section is great too. I almost never have to go shopping anymore for ‘stuff’. As long as you’re not extremely picky and can overlook the occasional scratch or dent – the place is a gold mine. Whenever I score something useful that I’ve been needing, I make a point of thanking ‘the universe’ (or whatever entity you prefer). If I need something big, I find that if I set an intention of finding it, it will usually show up within a week or two. Got a free 10×12 shed like that last month off CL. Of course, I had to pay to have it moved, but $250 vs $2800+ is a huge difference. I also try to put stuff I don’t want or need back out there on CL, but I think I need to try harder – there’s still more coming in at this point than going out – but most of it is ‘yard stuff’ & building supplies, so just tarp it and carry one…

        1. Yeah, I use craig’s list a lot too! I think its effectiveness depends, partially, on where you are and how much of a culture there is. I got a lot of free stuff while in Detroit; out here, people are unfortunately more likely to put it on the curb :(.

  6. At the University of Minnesota, I believe they came up with some type of system of having a place where you could drop things off. I’ve always been taught to be frugal and waste as little as possible, but in college I also had the advantage that I lived near my parents, so moving wasn’t that big of a deal. A lot of the furniture and bits & bobs I had in college came from things other students didn’t want. In my neighborhood, almost anything you put in the alley will be taken. My college also has a program where they deliver extra food that the cafeteria doesn’t use to needy people, and they also have a food shelf for students (and hopefully adjunct faculty!)

    1. I think my university is far behind on some of these kinds of initiatives, unfortunately. These are good to know–and think about!

    1. Thank you for the reblog! 🙂

  7. Nice article Dana and I am sure you will do a lot of good organizing your students in the coming years. It will be a help to them and they can feel good about giving their good but no longer needed stuff to the community. You will also be modeling a very good behaviour for them.

    Here on Denman Island, we have a Free Store and I get most of my work clothes there. I was in the book store section when a young lady tried to donate Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I just said, “Thank you,” and took it away and read it by candlelight. Our problem is too many donations as the store is a bit small but terribly popular. Any woman modeling a swanky new sweater or dress will be delighted to tell you she got it at the Free Store.

    I think having a Free Store on campus might be a good idea.
    Yours under the red cedar,

    1. I love this idea of a free store! How are they supported? Grants? It would do well around here, that’s for sure :).

  8. This is great. Where I live there is actually a huge annual sale of college castoffs, called Trash 2 Treasure, and most of the proceeds go to United Way. So many reusables. This is catching on, I think.

    1. Thanks, Yvonne! I will have to check out what some other campuses are doing :). Thank you so much!

  9. like

  10. I work in a college town and it is the same way here, but the college will not let you take anything. The college takes what the students leave and sale it to make money.

    1. Is that on campus or off? It seems like the college couldn’t control what is off campus? But at least the stuff isn’t going into the trash!

  11. Hi Dana,
    I asked one of the Matriarchs and she put me on to the women who run the Free Store. I will ask about how they set up and about funding. Will have to send you an email on it.
    Yours under the red cedar,

  12. Hi Dana,
    I asked one of the women, Anne Jansen, who started the Free Store how she did it. She said they just collected a supply of reusable goods and arrranged to use the basement of the Old School. They never had a grant. They put out a donations box for cash to pay the electricity bill. It is all run by volunteers.

    Anne said to arrange a space such as a room in one of the University buildings or perhaps a disused store or the basement of a church. Then put the word out that you want donations of good used clothing and kitchenware. Anne said to keep a list of large items that people want or want to give away as you will not have space for refrigerators and such but people will need them.

    Our Free Store is only open on Saturady mornings and is the social centre of the island. It is very jolly and everyone shops there. We also have our Farmers Market at the same time in the old playing field of the school.

    I hope this tiny acorn grows into a mighty oak for you.
    Hugs from Max

    1. That sounds wonderful, Max. Thank you so much for sharing this info! 🙂

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